Adam Wingard has become something of a household name lately, blasting on scene with his vicious shocker You’re Next, thrilling audiences with his retro cult specimen The Guest and solidifying his presence as a filmmaker to be reckoned with by scoring the reins to Godzilla Vs. Kong, the dude is a top dog who is here to stay. Many aren’t aware of his debut film though, and fair enough because it’s about as low budget, under the radar and avant-garde as horror can be but it’s so, so worth watching to triangulate the evolution of a fascinating artist from the murkiest pits of lo-fi, Grindhouse schlock to the loftiest echelons of Hollywood high gloss. It’s called Home Sick, he made it on a shoestring budget back in the mid 2000’s and it’s an absolutely diabolical treat, but only if you can stomach some truly jarring moments of gore and have one demented sense of humour with the capacity for.. let’s just say… abstract thought. Low budget, practical effects driven schlockers like these are a dime a dozen, but this one is worth it’s weight in gold simply for going that extra mile to make it memorable and stand out from the cheaply drawn masses. It starts out slow, with an eerie opening credit musical jingle and animated sequence that could suggest all kinds of horrors to come. We meet a group of friends in the Deep South going through the motions of partying and quarreling. Tiffany Shepis does a wonderfully nutty little riff on her scream queen shtick who likes to rail cocaine at her graveyard janitor job and swing a mop around with gale force. Anywho, this weird little troupe is kicking back one night, when into the apartment walks a very ill adjusted stranger named Mr. Suitcase (the legendary Bill Moseley), and sits down on the couch like he owns the place. He’s chipper, charming and affable to a terrifying level, as he opens up his suitcase full of razor blades that he calls “gifts”. He asks them all to pick one person in their life they hate and want to wish dead, slicing a nasty gash on his forearm for each answer. The hilarious lot deadpan member of the group (Forrest Pitts, in a priceless performance of comedic eccentricities) foolishly blurts out that he wishes everyone in the room dead, and then the real fun begins. A giant masked killer begins stalking and killing pretty much every character around in ways so brutal your balls will shrink into your pancreas. Seriously, it’s like they sat down in a boardroom and systematically came up with every squirm inducing way to inflict violence on a human body, and gave their results to the storyboard artist and effects team. It all comes to a chaotic, deranged finale when they take refuge with Uncle Johnnie (the late great Tom Towles, always brilliant) a gun toting chili enthusiast. That’s where the film comes off the rails, but it’s seemingly deliberate and actually quite hilarious, as everyone pretty much goes certifiably bananas and loses the plot all at once like feral kindergarten class in overdrive. There’s some thought and care put into the writing, and as such the characters, however odd or over the top, seem like real people, albeit some strange and undesirable folks. The film oozes unsettling atmosphere right from the get-go, fervent in its aggressively weird sense of style and never taking the conventional route that most horrors end up with. Like I said, if your sense of humour has an affinity for the bizarre, demented and off the wall (think David Lynch meets Tim & Eric meets The Evil Dead meets John Waters), you’re gonna love this little gem. On top of being a laugh riot, it’s just freaky enough to earn it’s horror classification, something which many films in the genre just can’t claim. As to why it’s called HomeSick, though? Couldn’t tell you, and there’s no reference to it the entire time. Perhaps it’s called that for the folks that will be thoroughly repelled and repulsed, those who watch it expecting a run of the mill, cookie cutter slasher and feel uncomfortable with the oddness, getting “home sick” for their safer horror fare. As for me, I’m right at home up the weird end of the alley, and love this type of thing and it’s one hell of a fascinating debut for any director to start out with.
Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses is a lot to sit through, and at times is a victim of its own overly zany ambition. Nevertheless, it’s the first stepping stone in the path of one of the most fascinating and talented directorial careers in the industry, and is a completely batshit mental curiosity in its own right. Zombie sprung onto the scene with this one and has since been a controversial, much talked about and frequently hated voice of horror. Let’s get one thing transparently clear: No one can be blamed for not enjoying his films, they’re incredibly niche and not everyone’s thing, but you are simply lying to yourself if you won’t concede what a hugely talented writer, director and all round filmmaker he is. I’ve had to get quite stern in conversations with people whose tunnel vision stubbornness supersedes their ability to logically analyze his work, and I simply won’t put up with it. Alright, scolding done, over to the film. I’ll be the first to admit that House is a splattered mess at times and goes about six light years over the top, but the sheer grungy scope of production design is really something to see. In deepest backwoods Americana, the murderous Firefly clan preys on, terrorizes and murders pretty much anyone who gets in their path. Bill Moseley is a Manson-esque dark angel as Otis Driftwood, renegade bad boy brother, Sheri Moon Zombie is like Harley Quinn on bath salts as Baby, who is definitely the scariest, while gargantuan Matthew McGrory, walking decrepitude grandpa (Dennis Fimple) and giggling slutwhore Mama (Karen Black doing her very best freaky Betty Boop rendition) round out the rest of the brood. They live in some cluttered rural dump right out of Hoarders™, luring unsuspecting travellers off the road and murdering them in really over elaborate, exhaustive looking ways. Oh and we see the birth of one of cinema’s most jovial and sleazy killer clowns, Sid Haig’s motor mouth Captain Spaulding, who bookends the film in uproariously raunchy comic relief. It’s a neon fever nightmare of relentless commotion, visual excess, metal music, retro Americana pop culture bliss and sadistic gore, Zombie going all out to solidify his storytelling aesthetic that would continue, in augmented, evolved ways, over the course of his brilliant career. This is certainly as obnoxious a film as you’ll find in his stable, and while it ranks in the southern end of my Zombie favourites list, there’s just no ignoring the raucous, depraved celebration of all things gross, gooey and grotesque that parades by. Not to mention the whip-smart, trashy and endlessly funny dialogue, writing being skill that the man excels in on another level.
Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a lot of things. Hypnotic, sedated mood piece. Thrumming, rhythmic action picture. Deeply romantic. More going on underneath it’s surface than what you see onscreen. Masterful crime piece. Showcase for digitally shot film. Restless, nocturnal urban dream. One thing it is decidedly not, however, is anything similar to the bright ‘n sunny, pastel suited 80’s cable TV show of the same name, also pioneered by Mann, at a more constricted and likely very different point in his career. A lot can be said for the show though, it’s instantly iconic and was one among a stable of crimeprimetime™ (The Equalizer and Crime Story did their part as well) to give many actors their break, actors who we take for granted as stars today. Mann’s film version is a different beast entirely, a likely reason for the uneasy audience reception. Let’s be clear: it’s one of the best films of the last few decades. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx make a deliberately moodier, more dangerous Ricardo and Tubbs, and their high stakes undercover work is set against an austerely fatalistic Miami that bares little resemblance to travel brochures, let alone the tv show many were used to. Their story starts one of two ways, depending on whether or not you view the extended director’s cut, which is the version I’d choose as it sets up tone before throwing you into a hectic nightclub sting operation they’ve got going, which is hastily interrupted by the exposure of a CI snitch (John Hawkes in a haunting cameo). This sets them on course to take down a powerful Cuban drug syndicate run by a scarily calm Luis Tosar and hotheaded maverick John Ortiz. Farrell gets involved with a girl from their fold, of course (Gong Li is a vision), a romance that has grown on me over the years, while Foxx is involved with beautiful fellow cop Naomie Harris, yielding heart wrenching moments in the final act. Darting in and out of the story as well are Tom Towles, Justin Theroux, Isaach De Bánkole, Eddie Marsan, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tony Curran and Ciaran Hinds, all vital cogs in a well oiled, momentous machine that doesn’t drop it’s pulse for a second. Composer John Murphy piles on the mood with his mournful score, highlighting evening boat-rides, shadowy shoot outs and outdoor nightclubs with a top tier soundscape, while cinematographer Dion Beebe works tirelessly to get shot after shot looking mint, not an easy task with a film this energetic and particularly lit. From start to finish it’s to the point as well, Mann has no interest in useless exposition, mapped out play by plays or cheesy moments. Everything careens along at a realistic pace and you’re on your own if you can’t keep up or make sense of the off the cuff cop jargon. There’s stillness too though, in a torn up Farrell watching his love disappear on the horizon, Foxx looking on from beside a hospital bed or simply either of them glowering out at the skyline from a rooftop pulpit before things Heat up. Like I said, do the extended version and you’ll get that terrific opener to set you up, instead of being thrown in the deep end right off the bat. Either way though, Miami Vice is one for the ages.
Stuart Gordon’s Fortress is one of the more overlooked dystopian sci-fi thrillers of the 90’s, and despite somewhat being a B-movie, it holds its own in pretty much every department. Quality story, terrific acting (even from the king of stilted delivery himself, Christopher Lambert) and a story with more depth than the poster or marketing might suggest. Lambert plays an unfortunate man on the run with his wife (Loryn Locklin) in an America of the future where having more than one child per mother is prohibited. They’re both nabbed trying to make a break for Mexico, locked away in a horrific prison called Fortress, a place where science has run amok and all kinds of neurological and biological experiments are performed on the inmates under the steely direction of evil Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith). Fortress is an unorthodox nightmare where basic rights are replaced by those of cattle or worse, and no one is safe from micro implants, mind alteration and all sorts of fun stuff. Lambert plans an elaborate escape with the help of various inmates including Vernon Wells, the late Tom Towles, Jeffrey Combs and Clifton Collins Jr., all putting in excellent and varied performances. The scene stealer is Kurtwood Smith though, who is usually cheeky, psychotic or sarcastic in his work. Taking on the type of role that typically goes to a Malcolm McDowell type guy, he tackles a character that is the farthest thing from sympathetic you could find and sort of turns that on its head, making him seem very much human in one galvanizing piece of acting work. You can label this type of thing second tier or low budget, write it off or not take it seriously, but the fact remains that many of these efforts are works of art in their own right, beautifully crafted adventure stories set in universes more vibrant and imaginative than our own, stories just to the left left of normal and full of schlock, machines, creature effects and smoke machines. Gordon is a master in this arena (remind me to tell you about Space Truckers one day), a creative force to rival Roger Corman and the like. Fortress is my personal favourite in his stable, and one shouldn’t underestimate its entertainment value and ability to hold up decades later. Oh and also, this suffers from an adorable condition I call Blade Runner Syndrome™, in which the far off year the film’s timeline exists in has been caught up to by our own trajectory, making the films future look like our past. This film’s specific year? 2017, as you’ll see in the poster above. That means that right now, Lambert and Smith are duking it out in that clandestine compound somewhere out there. Cool thought.